Speaking Out

On Community Housing

As a former 20-year resident of University City, I read with great interest the report on Penn's expanded community housing programs (Almanac March 2).

Given its marvelous housing stock, and its extraordinarily easy access to Center City thanks to readily available public transportation, most of UC has done a better than average job of resisting the kinds of urban blight that has taken over so many city neighborhoods in the last 20 years. But in recent years, it became evident that the presence of Penn (and other educational institutions) had become more of a curse than a blessing. Because Penn brings so many students into the area every year and provides an inadequate stock of affordable on-campus housing for those students, the real estate market is full of speculators (including Penn itself) resulting in dangerously low rates of owner-occupancy. This low rate of home ownership, combined with the extreme volatility of the student rental market and the reactionary nature of that market, created a serious threat to the viability of University City when a relatively small number of students were victims of serious crimes in the area.

The University, to its credit, recognized that the fate of the institution was tied in many ways to the fate of the local community, and began to take steps to address the threat to the community. And while I applaud Penn's willingness to spend so much money on the University City community, I also question whether the response as currently structured meets the real needs of the community and this city. It appears as if Penn's goals are not to stabilize and revitalize the local community, but to remake University City in its own image, creating a highly afflu-ent, disproportionately white enclave in which Penn's highly affluent white students can feel at home. There is no place for the working class and minority Philadelphians who spend their work lives providing services to students, faculty, and administrators at Penn.

The single family home initiative is a case in point. The problem in University City is not the lack of single family homes, but the low level of owner occupied residential properties. By concentrating on single family homes (most of which appear to be in the most affluent neighborhoods of UC) Penn is missing its opportunity to provide affordable housing to students and workers. The University and the community would be far better served if the program concentrated on rehabilitating smaller multi-unit dwellings (which had often once been single family houses) and reselling them with the stipulation that the purchaser must reside there, or the conversion of larger multi-unit buildings into affordable condominiums.

The enhanced mortgage program also needs to be rethought. Although certainly not conclusive, the data in D-L Wormley's report indicate that the eventual overall effect of the cash giveaway program will simply be to raise the price of real estate in UC. (The average price of homes sold in UC jumped by $15,500 between 1997 and 1998.) As the neighborhood "improves," the affordable housing opportunities that many found at the beginning of this program will rapidly disappear. Eventually, if the program continues as it is, the only people for whom buying a home in University City both makes sense and is affordable will be middle- and upper-level administrators and faculty from Penn. Given Penn's less than stellar record in minority (especially African American) recruitment and retention of faculty and upper-level administrators, the net result will be a much "whiter" University City-a result that flies in the face of any commitment to diversity of community or of the University itself.

A better solution would make the subsidy dependent upon both the price of the property and the income of the prospective buyer. By greatly enhancing the incentives for home purchases by lower income people, the University can both avoid the spectre of racism in its "community development agenda" and give a boost to the improvement of UC neighborhoods most negatively impacted by urban blight. Additionally, the boundaries of the enhanced mortgage district should be expanded northward, and especially westward. (Last summer, starting my search for a home to buy, I took a long walk down 48th Street and up 50th. 49th Street, the current boundary, appears to be the dividing line between areas where white people live, and those where they don't live. I chose not to purchase in UC, but bought in the Naval Home area instead-primarily because I felt that the areas just outside the enhanced mortgaged district might suffer as a result of the relative lack of incentives to purchase west of 49th.)

The availability of a purchase subsidy also should be extended to more than just Penn employees. It is simply bizarre that SpectaGuard and UCD employees who help keep the campus and community safe are not eligible for a program that will make it possible for them to really commit to the community they patrol. Nor is it fair that Bookstore, Trammel Crow, Bon Appetit employees, etc., be excluded. When one recognizes that these people are among the lowest paid workers on campus, and most likely to be from minority groups, one must question Penn's true intentions in excluding them from the program.

The home improvement subsidy needs to be expanded to include non-Penn affiliates, especially lower income home owners, and the level of matching funds needs to be adjusted based on income. The perception of a neighborhood is determined not so much by how many nice houses there are on a block, as by how many decaying ones there are. Including all current home-owners in the program would better serve if the goal is to change the perception of the community.

Most of the worst areas in the vicinity are those closest to depressed commercial areas-especially the area north of Walnut Street. Penn's current strategy of "mallification"-creating retail areas at Sansom Common and on 40th Street-comes at the expense of formerly thriving retail areas on Baltimore Ave., Market Street, 45th Street and 48th Street. Penn must recognize that 40th Street is not, and should not be "University City's Main Street"; "Main Street" should be part of the community, not on its border. Struggling retail areas are simply inconsistent with stable neighborhoods.

Finally, the University needs to explore ways to improve one of UC's greatest potential resources, Clark Park. Penn's overall plans appear to be to reduce the amount of open space on the western end of campus; with Clark Park only three blocks from Penn, it simply makes sense that the University would contribute toward turning this rough diamond into a shining jewel.

--Paul Lukasiak, Former Penn A-3 Employee

Response to Mr. Lukasiak

The Office of Community Housing has been extremely pleased with the response to the various housing programs launched last Spring. The 100 participants in the Enhanced Mortgage Program have come from all areas of the University family including traditional campus offices, classrooms and service centers, our hospitals, laboratories and health system affiliates. Staff who were outsourced are eligible and have participated in our programs. More than 60% of our participants are first-time home owners, and 500+ Penn affiliates have taken advantage of our counseling services and workshops.

Our new homeowners come from a broad range of income levels and are ethnically, racially and culturally diverse. The homes that were purchased ranged in price from less than $40,000 to in excess of $200,000; there have been duplexes and single family homes; two-, three- and four-story homes; homes needing little or no work and others that will require use of the incentive program for upgrading of kitchens, bathrooms, etc. The homes being bought reflect the wonderful variety of housing types and sizes in University City.

John Fry and I spoke to our Trustees about our desire to see a community housing program offered by other institutions, and we are in the process of meeting with senior administrators at several institutions to discuss how programs can be established. Penn should not be the lone institution addressing housing issues in our Community and we are delighted that Mercy Hospital is in the process of offering a housing program for its affiliates. In future updates on community housing, we hope to report that other institutional partners are addressing the need to increase home ownership in our community.

--Diane-Louise Wormley, Managing Director, Community Housing

Speaking Out welcomes reader contributions. Short, timely letters on University issues can be accepted by Thursday at noon for the following Tuesday's issue, subject to right-of-reply guidelines. Advance notice of intention to submit is appreciated.--Ed.

Almanac, Vol. 45, No. 26, March 30, 1999